Peter Thiel’s CIA-backed, data-mining firm honed its ‘crime predicting’ techniques against insurgents in Iraq. The same methods are now being sold to police departments. Will they inflame already tense relations between the public and the police?

In Minority Report, the 2002 movie adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel, Tom Cruise plays a police officer in the LAPD “pre-crime” unit. Using the premonitions of sentient mutants called “pre-cogs”, the police are able to predict when someone is going to commit a crime before it happens, swooping down from helicopters and arresting them on the street before they can do anything. Their “crime” is that they merely thought about it.

Palantir, the CIA-backed startup, is Minority Report come true. It is all-powerful, yet no one knows it even exists. Palantir does not have an office, it has a “SCIF” on a back street in Palo Alto, California. SCIF stands for “sensitive compartmentalised information facility”. Palantir says its building “must be built to be resistant to attempts to access the information within. The network must be ‘airgapped’ from the public internet to prevent information leakage.”

Palantir’s defence systems include advanced biometrics and walls impenetrable to radio waves, phone signal or internet. Its data storage is blockchained: it cannot be accessed by merely sophisticated hacking, it requires digital pass codes held by dozens of independent parties, whose identities are themselves protected by blockchain.

What is Palantir protecting? A palantir is a “seeing stone” in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; a dark orb used by Saruman to be able to see in darkness or blinding light. “Palantir” means “one that sees from afar”, a mythical instrument of omnipotence.